A survey of the top posters on lesswrong

In a post recently someone mentioned that there was a list of "Top 15" posters by karma.  That inspired me to send all of them this note:

Hi,

I am messaging you (now) because you are one of the 15 top contributors of the past 30 days of LW.

I was wondering if you do any time tracking; or if you have any idea how much time you spend on LW. (i.e. rescuetime)

I have made the choice to spend more of my time engaging with LW and am wondering how much you (and your other top peers) spend. And also why?

Maybe you want to rate each of these out of 10; the reasons you partake in LW discussions:

 

  1. Make the world better (raising the sanity waterline etc) 
  2. Fun (spend my spare time here) 
  3. Friends (here because my Real-Life is here; and so I come to hang with my friends - or my internet friends hang out here) 
  4. Gather rationality (maybe you still gather rationality from LW; maybe you have gathered most of what you can and now are creating your own craft)
  5. here for new ideas (LW being a good place to share new ideas) 
  6. here to advertise an idea (promoting a line of thinking from elsewhere - could be anything from; more Effective Altruism; to this book) 
  7. Here to create my own craft. (from the craft and the community) 
  8. other? (as many other's as you like)

 

In addition do you think people (others) should participate more or less in the ongoing conversation? (or stay about as much as they are?) And would you give any particular message to others?

Do you feel like your time spent is effective?

I wonder if this small sample; once gathered will yield anything useful. with your permission I would like to publish your responses (anonymised for your protection) if either something interesting comes out; or nothing interesting (publish the null result)

Please add as many comments as you can :).

I'd also like to thank you for being a part of keeping the community active. I find it a good garden with many friends.

Sincerely, E

(Disclaimer: I have no affiliation to rescue time I just like their tracking system)

As of the time of this post; I have received 10 replies.  I waited an extra week or two and there were no more replies after about 2-3 days.


The funny thing about asking for something is that people don't always answer in the way that you want them to answer.  (Mostly I blame myself and the way I asked; but I think its quite funny really that several replies did not include a rating out of 10)

1. Make the world better.

as was pointed out to me by one of the responses: "Mostly this is low because of ambiguity over "the world"", responses were; 0,2,6,y,y. of which I assume the other 5 were, 0,0,0,0,0.

 

2. fun.

Several replies included that this was a most productive time sink they could think of.  replies were y,y,y,10,10,8. One other person said they used LW as procrastination.  one said, "it's a reasonably interesting way of killing time".

 

3. friends

answers: y, 0, "4-more like acquaintances", 5.  Some people mentioned local meetups but also that they don't interact online with those people.  I suppose if you are here for friends you are kinda doing it wrong; here to not get yelled at and to understand things is more accurate of a description.  "I treat LW like a social club and a general place to hang out"

 

4. learn rationality

y,y but doubt it, 5 - a bit, 5.  I expected most of the top posters to have already achieved a level of rationality where they would be searching elsewhere for it.  I assume the others would be 0/n or close.

 

5. new ideas

.3,4,8 (assume 7*0). I guess the top don't think innovation happens here.  Which is interesting because I thing it does.

 

6. advertise ideas

.1,"6 - generally", (assuming 8*0).  I was concerned that the active members might be pushing an agenda or something.  Its entirely possible, but seems to not be the case.

 

7. create craft

.8,7.  I would have thought someone motivated to be increasing the craft of rationality would be here for that purpose.  I guess not.

" I'm not sure to what extent I'm creating my own craft, but it's a good question. At the very least I'm acquiring a better ability to ask whether something makes sense. "

 

8. other

Two people mentioned that this is a place of quality, or high thinking, they are here for the reasonableness or lack of unreasonableness of the participants.


open questions:

effective time: most responses to this were in the range of, "better than other rubbish on the internet", and "least bad time sink I can think of".

more or less posts: two people suggested more; one suggested less but of higher quality.  They all understand the predicament of the thing.

Time tracking: several people track, and others estimate between 30mins and 3hours a day.


Bearing in mind that the top posting positions are selected on multiple factors including whether or not people have time, not just relating to their effectiveness or their *most rational* status.  I don't believe this selection of people have said anything much helpful, other than 

 

some quotes:

" LW gives you the opportunity to share your ideas with a large number of smart people who will help you discard or sharpen them without you having to go to the trouble of maintaining a personal blog. A good post has the opportunity to deliver a lot of value to some very smart and altruistically motivated people. Becoming a respected LW contributor takes a lot of intelligence, thought, research, writing skill, and hard work. Many try but few succeed. "

 

" I am pretty much an internet discussion board addict"

 

"Suppose LW is just a forum where a bunch of smart people hang out and talk about whatever interests them, which is frequently potentially-important (effective altruism, AI safety) or intellectually interesting (decision theory, maths of AI safety) or practically useful (akrasia, best-textbooks-on-X threads). That seems to me like enough to be valuable"

 

"My karma comes from thousands of comments, not from meaningful articles."

 

"I feel there is a power law distribution to LW contributor value with some people like Eliezer, Yvain, and lukeprog making many high-quality posts. So I think the most important thing is for people like that to get “discovered”. It may take some leveling up for them to get to that point though, and encouragement for them to spend time cranking out lots of posts that are high-quality."

 

" I feel like if we gave top LW posters more recognition that could incentivize the production of more great content, and becoming a top poster with a high % upvoted genuinely seems like a strong challenge and an indicator of superior potential, if achieved, to me."

 

"As a rule, though, I do not believe that LW has much to do with refining human rationality."

 

"I think that written reflection is a useful way to engage with new ideas. LW provides a venue to discuss ideas with smart people who care about published evidence."

 

"I post on Less Wrong primarily because I'm a forum-poster, and this is the forum most relevant to my interests. If I stopped finding forum-posting satisfying, or found a more relevant forum, I'd probably move there and only rarely check LW."

 

"I think people should participate more. I view LW as a forum and not as a library."


In summary: what I think I have gathered.

The top posters don't think they or lesswrong is effective at changing the world; however this is a nice place to hang out.  I don't know what an effective place would look like but it is almost certainly not this place.  I don't see LW as being worth quitting or shutting down without a *better* alternative.  As a place striving to propagate rationality; that is debatable.  As a garden of healthy discussions and reasonable people remembering that their opposing factions are also reasonable people with different idea - this place deserves a medal.  If only we could hone the essence of reasonableness and share it around to people.  I feel that might be the value of lesswrong.

LW is a system built of people staying, "while its good" as soon as it is no longer as nice of a garden they will be gone.

I hope this helps someone else as well as me.

In light of the discussions about improving this place; I hope this helps contribute to the discussion.

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People have some kind of tendency to believe that if a conversation happens on the internet, it isn't very important or worthwhile. Surely the only important and worthwhile words are written in high-status media like books and journal articles. And the only important and worthwhile conversations happen in the offices of tenured professors at prestigious universities, not in the open thread of some obscure group blog.

Never mind that many useful concepts introduced in LW-sphere blog posts ("ugh fields", "moloch", "pulling the rope sideways", "Pascal's mugging") have entered the broader lexicon of hundreds or thousands of 130+ IQ high-income do-gooders. Never mind that few people read academic papers, much academic writing is terrible, and many books have a high word-to-idea ratio. Never mind that even obscure blog comments can be read by a triple-digit number of people (bigger than a typical college class) or even paraphrased by Peter Singer in a published book marketed to a wide audience (he paraphrases blog comments in The Most Good You Can Do).

Just because you find it entertaining doesn't mean you are wasting your time. Less Wrong is as good as we all make it.

People have some kind of tendency to believe that if a conversation happens on the internet, it isn't very important or worthwhile.

Not quite. An average conversation on the 'net isn't very important or worthwhile. However the tails are long and once you get far away from the mean, some very important and worthwhile conversations can be had.

Sure. It doesn't seem like the median book/journal article is very special either though.

No, but at least it probably had considerably more effort behind it :-)

I am not quite sure against whom (or what) are you arguing.

Against this statement:

The top posters don't think they or lesswrong is effective at changing the world; however this is a nice place to hang out. I don't know what an effective place would look like but it is almost certainly not this place.

Some Less Wrong posts clearly have a lot of effort put in to them. And some seem to me quite valuable, even to the point of potentially "changing the world" the way the best journal articles do.

The content is more important than the medium. I think high-quality content is a self-fulfilling prophecy to a certain degree.

Ah, I see. The thing that strikes me here is the difference between "potentially could" and "will" -- having conversations is not quite the same thing as going out and actually doing stuff.

Seems to me you underestimate the difficulty of changing the world.

I just read Elon Musk's biography a few weeks ago and that put me in a pretty good mood :) It doesn't seem like there are many competent, determined people who are bold enough to think they can do something great. In our society, thinking you can do something awesome is considered naive, so people who want to appear sophisticated rarely think this. Which is its own self-fulfilling prophecy. People were derisive of Elon for years before he ended up proving himself right. "The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do" - cheesy but likely true.

It doesn't seem like there are many competent, determined people who are bold enough to think they can do something great.

The "competent" part is the iffy one, but the startup world is chock-full of "determined people who are bold enough to think they can do something great". The great majority of them, of course, fail.

The problem with making high-stakes bets (e.g. on one's career path) is that the expected outcome of failing will be pretty painful.

...yet the ones that succeed end up having a huge impact on the world economy. I'm willing to be a missile that misses its target.

Anyway, we are talking about blog posts here not careers :) The downsides of accidentally writing a lousy blog post are not large.

People have some kind of tendency to believe that if a conversation happens on the internet, it isn't very important or worthwhile. Surely the only important and worthwhile words are written in high-status media like books and journal articles. And the only important and worthwhile conversations happen in the offices of tenured professors at prestigious universities, not in the open thread of some obscure group blog.

Do you think the LW users in question are guilty of this?

Never mind that many useful concepts introduced in LW-sphere blog posts ("ugh fields", "moloch", "pulling the rope sideways", "Pascal's mugging") have entered the broader lexicon of hundreds or thousands of 130+ IQ high-income do-gooders.

This is compatible with the belief than most of the marginal benefit of spending time on LessWrong is entertainment.

Mostly I blame myself and the way I asked; but I think its quite funny really that several replies did not include a rating out of 10

I'm sure you already know this, but: that really shouldn't have been a big surprise given that you said only "Maybe you want to rate each of these out of 10". (I was one of the survey-ees; I read that, thought "Nope, I don't", and gave qualitative responses rather than numbers. This still seems perfectly reasonable to me.)

I was definitely not being clear enough. In my head when I wrote the original note I was expecting replies from everyone with an understanding that it would be collated. as it is; 5 did not reply which surprised me greatly.

I am practicing the idea of being specific about what I ask (clearly not very good yet). I am surprised by how much "what I am asking" gets reinterpreted to be "what they think I want the answer to be like". I am also practicing the idea of answering the surface of the question; or answering the intention, not what I want to interpret the question as (or answering as both).

A 2/3 response rate is actually pretty spectacularly good.

on a normal population yes; but these are people selected for their ability to make comments on the internet. I was expecting higher.

Ability differs from willingness, and public comments on the internet differ from survey responses.

Of course, somewhere in my head they had a closeness to them, being related on the "participate in lesswrong things" axis. Hence an expectation of interest/participation/motivation to respond.

Note that the list of top-posters is fluctuating. For example I have been a top-poster only 3 or 4 times with long time inbetween. I think there are two populations: Some posters who contribute a lot - often in the form of comments. And then there are posters which are posting to Main and quickly rise to some prominent position in the top-posters due to the x10 karma.

My own scoring:

1) Make the world better (raising the sanity waterline etc) -> 5

2) Fun (spend my spare time here) -> 7

3) Friends (here because my Real-Life is here; and so I come to hang with my friends - or my internet friends hang out here) -> 1

4) Gather rationality (maybe you still gather rationality from LW; maybe you have gathered most of what you can and now are creating your own craft) -> 8

5) here for new ideas (LW being a good place to share new ideas) -> 8 (ideas new to me) 4 (genuinely new ideas)

6) here to advertise an idea (promoting a line of thinking from elsewhere - could be anything from; more Effective Altruism; to this book) -> 3

7) Here to create my own craft. (from the craft and the community) -> unsure

8) other? (as many other's as you like) -> learn about online socializing, forum contributing, writing

Sorry, not sure what this means. Actually if you are asking for my numbers on my survey...

  1. make the world better - 6 I am not sure that being here is actually doing that. Nor am I sure how to prove that.
  2. fun - 3 I am not occupying time as other people are, "in between things" and I have not been a forum-contributor very much before LessWrong.
  3. friends - 4 I am beginning to make friends, but thats not as a function of the forum, more a function of me reaching out and chatting to people in PM's. I also run my local meetup (with friends) and see those people visit and post sometimes. So I don't "need" this place for friends. I feel like friends are a thing that happens over time if you stick around long enough. But it was never why I came here
  4. learn rationality - 7 This is why I came here. I played wikipedia game the first time I got here. Had so many tabs. Nothing made sense. It was great! I was first directed in this direction to an overcoming bias article more than 6 or 7 years ago, but as many more active members will know; I have not been "around" that long. I had a drips-and-drabs interaction to things, I have run a meetup in Sydney for 1.5 years so far (with friends). Only recently re-reading "the craft and the community" sequence. Which has prompted me to be more active and "define my own craft" so to speak.
  5. new ideas - 10 As a place for pointing out new ideas; this place should tend to have a magnetic gravity of them. Previously noted (by everyone) was bitcoin, and I was not in a position to notice it at the time. I feel now I am better in a position to notice new ideas, and opportunities should they arise. They don't happen every day, or every week, but even every few months a great idea might come along. I am here for that.
  6. advertise ideas - 0 I am not selling anything of my own. I have not written a book or created a soylent alternative etc. But I asked this in recognition that maybe the top posters were pushing an agenda. (with the exception that I want to encourage people to go to more in-person meetups. I firmly believe that if you put great and brilliant people from various walks of life together; great things happen)
  7. create craft - 10 I am not quite sure how, but I am trying to get my brain into writings (both as a verb and a noun). Slow progress. I feel like I have something to offer, if only I could get it into sentence structure.
  8. other - 10 meetups. in-person meetups. That is something I care about. Definitely.

(I hope this is what you were asking for)

Neat! That has literally nothing to do with my chosen profile name, but it should considering I play chess...

Not a top poster, but I concur with your summary. Certainly it's a good forum for the new people to get introduced to the ideas or "rationality" and chat about them here. Then it plateaus and just becomes a decent place to hang out. At that point most new ideas come from SSC, Eliezer's FB posts, EA, etc.

Not a top poster

It seems fairly clear that this is more an indication of what a dubious metric being in the "top recent posters" list is than of anything else.

As a general note on conducting surveys, I'd advise constraining the responses a bit more, by using a platform for getting responses. Google forms survey + Text fields for comments are easier to use, easier to analyze, and are more comparable between people, since you know they see the same scales, etc.

The downside is that it requires just a bit more work on your part - which is usually a good trade-off.

creating a google form is not hard.

Benefit: standardised response disadvantage: have to drag people to another forum. Not sure of the response rate of doing so, or whether I would be able to account for that fairly.

The Google form is not hard; writing actual questions in language that you can get consistent answers from, (in ways that are not possible for different people to interpret differently) is a bit trickier.

Shall we call it the art and science of communicating with other humans...

Great initiative OP. I love this kind of work.

Taking future suggestions on this line of work. It was intended as a meta:ourselves quantification. But it didn't quite work that way...

sorry, this was an unhelpful comment that is now gone :)

Naw, the mixed origin of lingo is all right. I am a botanist and had never met the word 'akrasia' before LW, but it is simply useful, and so I liked it. If I ever have to talk to a non-LWer about it, I'll just explain it, and we'll move on. It's like math here, a bit: 'let akrasia stand for... And affect heuristic for... Then...'

If you know of useful words introduced by Cynics, post a list - it's better to have more words than less.

If you have a hard time introducing concepts, taboo the words and see what happens.

I do not know, or particularly care, what ancients are in fashion today; my library was inherited from a man who did not know or care, too, and I am more likely to stumble across Catullus because he's in the front row.

http://lesswrong.com/lw/mc9/regular_lesswrongers_interviews/ Made a new discussion post about it. Happy to hand over the initiative considering you came up with the idea. Send me a PM and we could even work together on it.

perhaps that could influence a more consistent and controlled vocabulary

I don't think that would be a good thing. A "controlled" vocabulary is useful in some ways, but harmful in others. Yes, it promotes communication within the narrow circle of experts, but at the same time it inhibits cross-discipline flow of ideas and I believe the latter to be very, very important.

At the same time tracing the origins of LW's jargon would be a cool project :-)

but to everyone else, is just plain weird

I am entirely fine with that :-P

Most interesting things look weird to outsiders at first glance.

I'd also like to learn more about what Gwern knows, how he knows it, how he uses what he knows and why he uses it that way.

Gwern.

I wanted to see a more natural account - an interview style approach of questioning...but published publicly.

Gwern's often in the #lesswrong IRC channel; you could interview him yourself.

would like to be Lesswrong be more exclusionary too

Exclusionary of what? That's a rather important question. I suspect that many exclusionists have something particular they want to exclude.

I wanted to see a more natural account - an interview style approach of questioning

Well, do it yourself. Contact gwern, see if he is amenable to an interview, ask him your questions. He's a real person who hangs around here on occasion, not a mystical figure in a far-away land.